Take 5: Absenteeism task force, principal eligibility and “lost” children

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The Chicago Tribune calls the reforms recommended by a state task force on absenteeism sweeping. The task force was created after a Tribune investigation found that about 13 percent of Chicago’s elementary school students miss more than a month of school or vanish without anyone in CPS knowing where they went. The recommendations include the return of truancy officers, changing the way districts report absenteeism and sharing real time information on absent students with other entities, like the Chicago Housing Authority.

But then, in the ninth paragraph, the story points out that since the series was published in November 2012 — and based on data from the 2010-2011 school year — chronic absenteeism has gotten worse in the elementary grades. As Catalyst reported in May, in every grade level during the 2012-2013 school year there was a substantial increase–an average of 5 percent. The Tribune notes that this past school year, the rates have gone down a bit, but are still higher than 2010-2011.

CPS officials say they do not know what caused the increase, according to the Tribune. One thing that was different in 2012-2013 was that school officials were threatening to close more than 100 schools, which caused some instability.  Ultimately, they closed 50.

2. Policy or political…. Despite failing the CPS’ principal eligibility test twice, Ald. Pat O’Connor’s sister Catherine Sugrue will serve as Gray’s interim principal, according to the Chicago Tribune. Many saw this coming when the agenda for the Board of Education included an item that gave CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett leverage to override the principal eligibility process. One change is that interim principals don’t have to meet the eligibility requirements, whereas before they did. Also, the CEO can now determine how long a candidate is excluded from consideration after failing twice; whereas the old policy called from them to be excluded for three years. 

CPS officials say the policy change was not pushed specifically for Surgue and that her brother, the alderman, did not intervene on her behalf. In fact, CPS officials say that Sugrue is the second principal appointed under the policy change, but the Tribune article does not name the second principal.

But the fact that leaders are willing to put more flexibility into the principal eligibility process is surprising. Making it harder to become a principal was one of the key provisions of the district’s “comprehensive, multi-tiered Principal Quality Strategy,” unveiled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett in February 2013. The new process includes a “Day in the Life” simulation and criteria for assessing how well candidates interact with parents and communities.

However, having a stringent principal eligibility process erodes the power of Local School Councils to choose whomever they want. In the case of Gray, the LSC chose Sugrue. While not being specific, district officials told DNAinfo that Sugrue did not make it past the first stage of the process, which entails being interviewed by a two-person panel of experts.

3. Lost and found… Barbara Byrd-Bennett penned an op-ed for the Chicago Sun-Times patting herself and her administration on the back for locating the 847 students “identified by our critics as `lost.’”  Byrd-Bennett says that CPS found these students had transferred to the suburbs, out of state or to private schools. She writes that the location of these students was confirmed by ISBE, though ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus told Catalyst that she doesn’t know who at ISBE confirmed the information.

CTU President Karen Lewis raised the issue of “lost children” at the March board meeting, referencing the fact that CPS’ own information identified these students as “inactive.” At the time, CPS spokesman Joel Hood told Catalyst that CPS was working with ISBE to locate the students and that the information would be provided as soon as it was available. But rather than provide the data to Catalyst, CPS officials decided it would be better to write an editorial. Catalyst is still waiting for more detailed information, not only about where students went, but where the information came from.

4. Immigrant children and school districts… Children who have fled the violence in Central America are enrolling in Illinois public schools. Officials in Waukegan say 77 children from Honduras have enrolled as of the last week of July for the 2014-15 school year, bringing the total from the last two years to nearly 100, according to the Lake County News-Sun.

District officials here in Chicago can also expect to receive more of these students as Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently agreed to provide shelter to 1,000 children fleeing the gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

School districts from Miami to Houston are preparing for an influx of students, who frequently require special — and expensive — resources such as English language and mental health services. Obama administration officials recently reminded districts of a decades-old Supreme Court ruling that ensures all children the right to enroll in school, regardless of their immigration status.

5. As Chicago opens its doors… to children fleeing violence, the  city also is struggling to protect its own children from it. A Fenger Academy High School graduate featured on CNN’s“Chicagoland” was shot and wounded over the weekend. Lee McCollum Jr. was highligted as a young man who turned his life around. The 20-year-old was shot twice in the leg as he headed into work at a Wendy’s at 7:30 a.m. Saturday from his grandfather’s home in Roseland. He had graduated last year and was working to save money for college, family members said.

Fenger’s principal, Liz Dozier, who was also featured prominently in the CNN series, told the Tribune she’s kept in touch with McCollum since graduation, and hopes he enrolls in college this fall. “We are still trying to get him off to school … It’s just better to get him out of the city,” she said. “We’re working on it for him.”